Our man at the BBC
By Camilla Premachandra
On Monday 24th of July 2023, we lost a member of our global family. George Alagiah was a BBC newsreader, journalist and television presenter. George was also a Tamil, a Sri Lankan, a Ghanaian and an Englishman. In our household, and in many british-Sri Lankan households across the UK, George wasn’t just ‘someone off the telly’ - George was one of us. George had really 'made it', seeing him on the telly was a little celebration of recognition: a man with the same heritage as us, reading us the 6 o’clock news each night - he was our man at the BBC.
In a touching Obituary of George, published by the BBC here, Journalist Sangita Myska noted George’s influence on British Asian reporters:
"Growing up, when the BBC's George Alagiah was on TV my dad would shout "George is on!". We'd run to watch the man who inspired a generation of British Asian journalists.”
“George is on!” was certainly a familiar cry in our home too. Long before 'If you can see it, you can be it' became a familiar phrase in modern diversity and inclusion lexicon, George was out there ‘being it’, representing our community for who we really were (far from the right-wing media’s lurid imaginings of “what immigrants were really like”).
Be it journalists or young doctors - The Sri Lankan immigrant community in the UK was highly educated (“Surely immigrants were all stupid?”); respectable and professional (even when patients requested “i want to see a white Doctor”); trustworthy and conscientious (despite media depictions of us as unscrupulous and irresponsible); Clean and smartly dressed (always depicted as dirty and shabby); full of empathy and integrity; and brimming with courage and open-mindedness at the choices and opportunities a new life in the UK served up (“coming over here and taking our jobs…”). George was the most prominent representative of who we really were.
George was born in Colombo in 1955 to Therese and her husband Donald Alagiah, a successful civil engineer. After the brutally violent riots of 1956 and the increasing hostility of Solomon Bandaranaike's racist government, the Alagiah family moved to Ghana, and in 1967 George was sent to board at St John's College in Portsmouth. He said in an interview 'It took me a long time to be able to get to the point where my Britishness wasn't questioned, to be then able to enjoy and exploit my Sri Lankan-ness.'
I always found George relatable because in some ways, I imagined George’s family was similar to mine. He met his wife Frances at Durham University and their children share the same mixed Sri Lankan/English heritage as my brothers and I.
There are two guaranteed experiences of growing up in a part-Sri Lankan household - number one is developing a deep suspicion of the contents of ice cream tubs - which nearly always contain a Curry your dad froze at least 2 years previously. Even today as an adult, I still occasionally express surprise when I open a tub of ice cream from my own freezer and find that it does in fact contain ice cream.
The second, is experiencing the kindness, hospitality and generous mentorship extended to any and all fellow Sri Lankan doctors and trainees, never mind how far from home or distant (to the point or total abstraction) the connection.
I remember the look on a school friends face when i nonchalantly explained that my Dad’s Cousins Wife’s Sister’s Son’s friend, a young ENT registrar, had just popped in for a meal with his wife and kids, and they were all staying in our guest room for few nights; unknown to me this was apparently pretty unusual to not-sri lankan-doctor families.
George accomplished so much in his career and it’s clear from the extremely touching tributes paid to him by his peers that he was kindhearted and deeply generous with his time, mentoring fellow BBC journalists Clive Myrie and Naga Munchetty. Like George, my Dad and his Med School peers were the generation that had successfully ‘made it off the boat’. As they assimilated into hectic high-flying careers in the NHS and busy family lives, they made sure the ladder they’d climbed was clear for the next generation, extending a helping hand to other Sri Lankan trainees wherever they could.
Rest in peace George, our man at the BBC.
You can watch the BBC’s full-length tribute to George here: